Cumulative circumstantial privilege


More than 20 years ago I applied to read law at Cambridge.  I went to a good state school, but didn’t go to any preparation classes.  There were some, but I can’t remember now whether I didn’t want to go, failed to sign up for them, or simply wasn’t selected to attend.   I remember the day I went for the interview though.  I didn’t really know what to expect beyond the most general understanding that there would be an interview and tests.  I’d picked the college mainly because it looked nice from the brochures I’d found in the school library.  I didn’t really know how else to pick a college to apply for, surely all Cambridge colleges are the same and equally academic I thought?

On the day of the interview, after a pleasant tour round the grounds I did a legal aptitude test.  I remember thinking it was odd, and not really understanding what was expected of me.  I was used to being asked about things I already knew or at least knew something about and it seemed vaguely daft to be asked legal questions when I didn’t have any legal knowledge.  Surely that was what I was going to University to study?  The interview was odd too, one person, mid to late 50s, male, in what looked like his office but sitting in two armchairs (which felt very odd).  He didn’t seem to be making notes, and the questions seemed very general.  Things like why do you want to study here, and what do you want to do with your life.  I had a general sense that there were some rules, some expectations of what to say, but I didn’t know what they were.  So I just tried to be honest, but even at 18 I understood that he didn’t want to hear that I applied to the college because it looked nice in the brochure, which was pretty much my sum total knowledge not only of the college but also Cambridge.

He asked me about work experience, I’d done a week in chambers and a week in a solicitors office, and it turned out the barrister I’d been with had been to the college, and was clearly a favourite of his, he was clearly proud when he recited that the barrister had been editor of some sort of legal paper, and written some impressive things.  At this point I had some understanding that I’d stumbled on something potentially useful, but in the moment I just didn’t really have the experience to know how to even begin to capitalise on this.

I remember waiting for the envelope to arrive, and the classic moment when it dropped onto the mat.  I grabbed it from my Mum and ran into the lounge to open it in private, my whole future either way was going to be changed by what was in the envelope.

I didn’t get in.

Although they did put me into some sort of clearing pool which seemed a little odd.  It kind of sounded like they didn’t have space for me but some other college might.  It seemed unlikely that any other college had been so underwhelmed with applicants that they would need to go to some sort of clearing pool, so I just assumed it was some sort of lame way of saying that I was almost good enough.

My parents were really good about it, they’ve always loved me no matter what, and didn’t see Cambridge as the be all and end all of life.  In fact in hindsight they probably weren’t that bothered where I went as long as I learnt and was happy.

It hurt though.  Visiting Cambridge on day trips hurt, I felt like I had been rejected, that I wasn’t good enough.

Maybe I wasn’t good enough, I did a law degree but didn’t excel in legal academia and despite my early ambitions to become a barrister, ended up taking another path.  But that other path, HR and psychology have led me to ask different questions about the selection process I went through.  How many of the other students being interviewed and tested that day had little idea of what was expected?  How many had been coached, or at least prepared for the interview and test?  How many were from the state system and how many from public schools?  With psychometric tests, the majority are difficult to improve on with practice, apart from an initial 5 – 10 % improvement from being clear what the test is all about, which includes elements of reducing stress levels from the unknown.  But even 5% might make a big difference – I’ll never know because I didn’t get the scores. And then there is the interview, humans are inherently biased, and one person asking and marking general open ended questions and not making any notes, probably without any in depth recruitment training, is about as biased as it gets.

But this was 20 years ago, and psychology also tells us that personal memory is not as accurate as we sometimes feel.  Maybe I have warped memories of that day?  The problem with challenging this kind of thing is that it sounds like sour grapes.  If there is obvious discrimination then it is easier to point out, but subtle buried bias is much harder to test.  We know that less state kids go to Oxbridge, but the more interesting question is why?  Except from the odd person, I strongly doubt it is overt bias, I don’t think the academics or systems conciously prefer public school kids.  In fact quite the opposite, I believe that many are working really hard to improve the percentages of state school children who apply and are accepted.  But it comes down to the challenge of testing ability and potential when children have been exposed to very different opportunities and learning.

It is impossible to undertake a double blind experiment to identify what aspects of a young person’s ability are innate and what are due to the opportunities life has offered them, but without that how can we possibly know whether a state school kid is just not good enough to go to Cambridge, or simply doesn’t know enough about how to behave, what to say, and what the rules are, to compete with public school kids….

We may be well on our way (but not there yet) in getting rid of outright discrimination in society generally, but it is far harder to even the playing field of the inherent contextual, circumstantial and cumalitive  privilege that being born in one family as opposed to another still bring.

Personally I wonder whether not getting into Cambridge gave me a different kind of gift, to realise that I could like myself even when I failed, that there were many ways to achieve success and happiness in life, and that ultimately whether I did or didn’t go to Cambridge, probably wasn’t as momentous as it felt that day I held the envelope. I wonder in the right circumstances and with time can sour grapes become a great vintage?




Why money alone does not create wealth, and why it matters.

Photo by Pixabay on

Wealth is a far broader and deeper concept that money.  It encompasses resources such as time and connections.  Money matters, it can buy you the time, access and freedom to be your true self, to care for yourself and others.  But Money can’t buy you relationships, it really can’t buy you love, only sycophants.   Lack of “enough” money though can be disastrous; physically, emotionally and spiritually.  But what is “enough”?  I’ve never really understood those that go for their second billion.   I’ve been watching the tv show “Billionaires” to try to understand (the fictional box set being the closest I’m ever going to get to a real Billionaire), and it suddenly occurred to me.  It’s not about the money! It was about competition, about being the biggest, the best.  The money was simply how they kept score.  The problem with competition is even if you “win” it is momentary, someone else will run faster or build a bigger yacht sooner or later or perhaps worse the world will simply stop caring.  You see there is only one way to truly “win” and that is to genuinely not mind losing.  If you can only feel good about yourself if you are winning, you will never really feel good about yourself.

So who is going to tell the Billionaires and more importantly the wannabes?


The problem with attempting to emulate the successful…

Every self respecting conference has a few inspirational speakers.  Individuals who have been successful, sometimes exceptionally successful, telling us their stories.  The basic premise is that if we listen and copy what they have done, we can be just as successful.  There are some really big problems with this idea.

Although the individual has been successful, that doesn’t mean that they truly understand how or why.  No doubt they have created a believable story that makes sense to them and other people, and I’m sure that many such stories have some truth, a few a lot of truth, but I doubt many are the whole story.  This doesn’t mean that they are being dishonest, it is more a recognition that only the most aware of both themselves and their surroundings are able to truly appreciate the combination of situation, luck, hard work, personality and a thousand other factors that contribute to one person’s success.  After the fact it seems so obvious, but the real trick is prediction, can you take a year full of students and predict who will do what and how successfully?  No, because no-one can, we can make some reasonable guesses, but the person most likely to succeed might have a string of bad luck.  One of the brightest people in my year at school died in a horrible freak accident in his 20s.  And the person who hasn’t sorted it all out at school, may simply be a late bloomer (my Dad didn’t do very well in his exams at school, but now has 4 degrees including a PhD).

Then there is the problem that tomorrow’s successes might need to be fundamentally different to yesterdays.  Creating Microsoft and Apple were amazing achievements, but are very different to google and Facebook.  The real question is what is the next google, and what kind of person will be the person to create it?  Unfortunately you’d need a real crystal ball, an inspirational speaker, however well intentioned, just won’t do it.

But maybe I’m missing the point entirely.  If it is about hope, and a story where someone comes from nothing to create something amazing, who overcomes difficulties and challenges, then inspirational speakers have something truly useful to offer their audience.  The belief that it could happen to anyone, and some real learning about dealing with the problems that will come up, whatever they are.  So maybe we are just looking for some internal warmth before we step out into the wind and rain once more to try to create tomorrow…



Goodbye command and control; hello engage and inspire.

luxembourg_troops_fight_with_united_nations-_training_with_the_belgian_army_in_england_uk_1943_d16778Power at work has changed.  Hell, power in the whole of society has changed, and very quickly at that.  Today I received the corporate credit card for the Ltd company I set up.  It occurred to me that 60 years ago I would not have been allowed to get any credit without permission from my husband, let alone one from a company I set up.   Freedom, opportunity and equality have brought amazing changes to society, and they have also fundamentally changed the role of power in communities, homes and the workplace*.

Whilst there are many models and structures for organisations, the most common historically has been one of command and control, very similar to that of the armed forces.  There is a hierarchy and each person does what their boss tells them to.  Most organisations still have hierarchical structures, but command and control doesn’t work so well with knowledge workers.  In todays ever more complex and evolving world, gone are the days where the boss knew your job better than you did because they’d done it for 20 or 30 years longer than you had.  Your job might have only existed for 5 years.  But if the boss doesn’t understand your job, how can they tell you what to do, when and how?  The simple answer is they probably shouldn’t, because they probably don’t understand the implications of their directives.  Doesn’t mean they won’t try though…

There has been a lot of talk in the media, HR and business about flat, self organising structures, but in reality few of these actually exist in organisations. Instead, most people still have a manager, but instead of “telling them what to do” their roles have become more about coaching, motivating and engaging staff with the objectives of the organisation.  We are in a period of transition, so for the moment managers still have some absolute power such as control of budgets and hiring and firing.

But have employees noticed that the power balance has changed?  The so called “millennials” are starting their working lives with much higher expectations of meaning, freedom and opportunity within organisations.  The psychological contract is significantly different from that of their parents and grandparents.  They don’t expect a job for life, but they also expect their loyalty and commitment to be earnt, and if it isn’t they may either move on, or stay, but be disgruntled (which is often far worse for the organisation).

Much of the power in organisations today, during this period of transition is actually social expectation and rules.  Many employees will still do everything their boss tells them, because they are scared, or feel they will lose out if they don’t, or just because they grew up with the notion that working hard, and doing what you were told was what a good “girl/boy” should do.  But if/when they ask themselves the question, “what can my boss do if I don’t do this exactly as he/she said?”, employers have a problem.  It is also far easier for managers to exert power to stop an employee doing something than to force them to do something.  So they may make it difficult for an employee to leave work early, but forcing them to use every ounce of their intellect, experience and attention to do an amazing job is a little harder.  The difference between a highly competitive and successful organisation, and one that is sinking to the bottom, may just be the ability of its managers to switch to engage and inspiring, ditching command and control to the history books.

I wonder what will happen when all knowledge workers notice that power at work is changing?

*For more about how some of these changes have affected men’s lives read this excellent article.

The story of Nobody, Everybody and Somebody…

There was an important job to be done. Everybody assumed it was Somebody’s responsibility to make sure it happened. Nobody carefully planned the work, ensuring that each element of the task was understood and organised, delegated, financed and supervised. Nobody made sure everybody knew what was going on. Somebody got confused. Nobody got all the work done properly but Somebody got some of it done. Nobody was hurt. Everybody was annoyed that Nobody had completed the work. Everybody blamed Somebody for not ensuring everything got done the right way. Everybody assumed Somebody would make sure it was done properly next time. Nobody did it.

Does demonising weight help?

2006-03-25 - United Kingdom - England - London - British Museum - Four People - Old Couple - Fat ManThe Surgeon General made a very public statement that obesity is a bigger problem than terrorism.  I doubt many would argue that being a healthy weight, exercising and eating well are ideal, and both extend life and protect health.  But do we really believe the overweight and obese people in the UK don’t know that?  Do we really think they don’t wish to to be thinner and healthier, and might be trying to lose weight?  We also know that once the weight has been put on it is phenomonly hard to lose it.

But if we accept that obesity increases chances of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer (none of which I fancy), by how much?  If it increases my chances from 1% to 2% that doesn’t seem as bad as increasing it from 30% to 60%, but both are a 100% increase.  And what about other factors.  No-one (as far as I’ve been able to tell) in my family on either side has ever had heart problems, let alone died from them (although I do have a great grandfather who died in a pub fighting for money).  My resting heart rate varies from around 60 – 80 beats per minute and my blood pressure is a healthy 120/80.  Yes, I’m obese, and I’m not going to pretend I have big bones.  I eat too much, and I exercise too little, and always have done.  But I completed a triathlon whilst obese (admittedly slowly) – does this change my chances?

Even if we accept that it is a REALLY bad idea to be obese – does lecturing people, and make them feel bad really help people to change?  Shame is a very uncomfortable and hidden emotion but on a bad day it is how I feel about overeating.  Bearing in mind a lot of people find that negative emotions trigger inappropriate eating (i.e. eating for any reason other than hunger), does drenching people in shame really work?  It feels like a case of, well we obviously haven’t lectured and shamed you enough, because you haven’t fixed yourself yet have you!  This is starting to feel like a bullying approach, not a supportive one.  There is also the unsaid assumption that if you are fat, you can’t control yourself, or your desires.  Surely you must be lazy and unable to finish anything as well.  Well as an obese woman with 3 degrees, a successful career, 2 children and undertaking a PhD in psychology, it doesn’t feel like I’m too bad at getting things done (although if my husband is reading this – yes I am lazy when it comes to housework).

The truth, as so often is the case, probably lies somewhere in the middle, but if we are really going to reduce the obesity problem, I don’t believe more shame is the way to go.


Capitalism 2.0

9267-several-british-bank-notes-pvCapitalism basically works, but it isn’t the person at the party known for its caring sharing understanding approach to those in need. Communism is arguably, in a theoretical sense anyway, all about fairness and equality, but has some pretty fundamental problems when applied in practice (I’m no historian but from what I know of the USSR and Chinese cultural revolution, it wasn’t all nice).

I’m sure plenty will be written about Brexit in the years to come (and plenty has already been written), but one thing that is becoming clearer post Brexit is that those that feel that the system isn’t working are now in the majority in the UK. Whilst I appreciate that the EU referendum wasn’t a referendum on capitalism, from a psychological perspective I don’t think it was simply about our membership of the EU either, it was far more complex than that. Some themes do seem to be coming from the discussions of the LEAVE supporters though including a sense that whilst leaving the EU may well be a risk, things aren’t ok now so it is a risk worth taking. To me this feels like a comment on the whole political system and capitalism itself; it may work for many, but right now in the UK the majority that voted feel it isn’t working for them or their families.

So if there are winners and losers with both capitalism and communism, is there a way we could create a system that makes winners of us all, or at least a whole lot more winners proportionally than we have now?

Can someone please invent capitalism 2.0 for us please? We are in great need of an upgrade…

Complexity is scary


Ok, maybe not as scary as this clown, but really scary all the same.  The world is messy and chaotic, but we have to try and make sense of it somehow, so we simplify.  It is so much easier and more comfortable to suggest that only the lazy are poor, or that the rich and successful are deserving, or we got the job because we were the best (rather than the bias of the interviewers).  But what if luck, and genetics, and environmental factors that we have little choice over have far more of an impact over whether our children will be happy and successful than what we do as parents?  Perhaps lack of control is more scary than complexity and randomness, so we see simple causation.  If I am a good Mum, my kids will be ok.  So scientists have gone through the world with a toothpick and probably found 99% of the simple correlations and causations, the problem is we are now just left with the complicated stuff, and there may not be too many simple correlations and fixes to be found.  Pills, and medicines, and surgery are amazing, but the remaining health challenges of today, mental health, managing disability, obesity and diabetes are complex and messy and are proving harder to solve with simple one step cures.

I wonder if the future of psychology will be quantum?  Will we ever be able to take a multitude of varied factors and maybe by using computers calculate probabilities of outcomes.  Something like, genes + good school – social skills = 40% chance of staying married.  The problem with complex problems….they need complex solutions, and as I was saying, we don’t much like complexity.


The Human Operating System

computer circuits

If the circuits of a computer are called hardware , the soft squishy grey matter inside our heads is considered wetware, in honour of the fact that the largest component of our brain is water. But if we extend the comparison between our brains and computers, what is our operating system? Clearly, even with upgrades (education, evolution, learning) our software came into existence long before operating systems for hardware. Computers are essentially binary (I know enough about quantum computing to know I don’t know enough to talk about it!), but my suggestion is that wetware is analogue. But analogue that can learn binary or for that matter pretty much anything else, including how to make hardware and software, and maybe other types of wetware someday.

Daniel Kahneman (the only psychologist to get a nobel prize, albeit he got it in economics!) has pretty much definitely proved that human’s are rarely logical, and certainly less logical than we think we are. Logic is binary, therefore if we aren’t binary then an analogue operating system that runs on comparisons and groups of ideas as schema/constructs seems to make sense.

Maybe the next big breakthrough in psychology will be someone reverse engineering the code for our analogous wetware?